How the Circuit of the Americas’ plan to make top-level racing inclusive is resulting in a fiercely loyal fan base – and it’s all happening live on Twitter.

By Danielle Crespo.
Originally published in E-Racing Magazine, October 2015. Archived page

Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport if you will, isn’t exactly friendly. Nor is it meant to be. The drivers are judged for every raised eyebrow or smirk, paddock club tickets can cost upwards of $5,000 per person and the series is routinely nagged for a lack of fan inclusivity. It would seem that the series is too exclusive for its own good. This dearth is apparent both during race day, where minimal access to cars and drivers is part of the show and TV viewing trends.

Recent in-fighting between the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and its own governing body, the FIA, raises a squabble about the new F1 race in Azerbaijan being tentatively scheduled on the same day as WEC’s historic crown jewel, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And WEC, after its second try in Austin, is still struggling to make an impact in the United States. The series must do a better job of educational outreach to entice this new audience in addition to F1 fans.

For many, enjoying the conveniences of home while watching the race on TV while browsing live Twitter commentary as a second-screen experience, is the only other option to taking in the race live.

There’s not really a benefit to being a middle-class F1 fan, unless it’s enough to be dazzled by standing on the hallowed grounds of a track during a Grand Prix weekend. With global TV viewer numbers falling and historic tracks being replaced on the F1 calendar by new races in foreign, oil-rich lands, there’s a lot less of that dazzle to go around. Unless, that is, you’re dazzled by a Twitter .gif of a clip from Breaking Bad with Jesse Pinkman saying, “Yeah, Science!” Evidently, this is effective for 62,400 people who follow – and many of those who actively engage – with the Circuit of the Americas’ Twitter account, @circuitamericas.

The Twitter handle represents the “voice” of the 2015 F1, WEC, MotoGP (and many more) race facility in Austin, Texas. As the host of these top-level globe-trotting entities, the social media face of COTA has an oddball, tongue in cheek, low-tech and absolutely American vibe to it. The conversational tone humanizes the 300-acre racetrack and engages followers without tugging at purse strings. It brings instead, a friendly approach to the brand and all it represents.

I was surprised to find out that this “voice” is actually two people – Harlow Yaeger and Meg Trahan. The duo have spent so much time together, that they’re able to weave in and out of their shared social media duties without a noticeable change in tone. I sat down with them between press conferences at September’s WEC race. After talking about American Alexander Rossi’s F1 debut and staging a brief photo op of their drone, “Bernie Eccledrone,” I found out how the affable pair manage their role as the voice of COTA.

“We want to humanize it and make it fun, and engage the audience. In a world-class facility, people can have a stand-offish feeling towards that sort of higher level terminology, so we want to be normal people running a really cool business here,” explains Trahan. “We want that to reflect the voice that’s going out.” Yaeger adds, “The die-hards know what’s going on (in motorsports news) anyway, and we don’t need to pander to them or speak to them about 10ths of seconds, because they can get that anywhere. We want them to get a feel of what the event is like, the emotional connection that we have to being here. It’s one of the reasons we rely on humor so much, it’s fun to be here and we want people to have fun interacting with us online.”

When asked about the importance of using the account to sell tickets, Trahan explains, “At the end of the day we want people to have a good time. The ticket sales will get them here, but when they’re here, we want them to have fun.”

Trahan and Yaeger’s COTA personality spans across multiple platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Periscope, Vine and Instagram. Speaking to the users of each of these channels is not as simple as duplicating and distributing one message over all networks. “You have to know the platform to reach the demographic you’re going to,” says Yaeger. “One of the reasons the COTA Twitter account is so oddball and weird is because Twitter skews a little younger. People who are intensive Twitter users tend to have a unique sense of humor. If you’re going to look at what one platform looks like vs. the other (take Twitter vs. Facebook for instance), it’s clear we’re trying to appeal to an older demo (demographic) on Facebook, and we can have more fun with Twitter.”

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Bernie Eccledrone, Harlow Yaeger, Meg Trahan. /Danielle Crespo

Fun as it is, it still took work to craft this voice, but they don’t try to gain fame from behind the COTA facade. In fact, their anonymity isn’t a mandate. “(COTA has) never asked that of us, we just naturally tend to because it’s about the brand, not about us. That’s not like our natural voices on our own,” says Trahan. Yaeger adds, “I’m always reticent to step out from behind the veil, because I feel like it breaks the fourth wall. I don’t want it to ruin the character, I don’t care if people know that it’s me behind it or not. I know people appreciate what we’re doing and that means more to me than personal accolades.”

So what’s the objective? The ROI for all of the efforts behind the social media push? I’m met with a pause, an “oh boy…” before Trahan rhymes off some of the goals: ”Brand building, putting the name out there, and showing how much fun it is out here, trying to create that atmosphere in the social sphere.” After a second to go over his answer, Yaeger perks up and adds, “The objective is not only to entertain people, but to make an emotional connection with them, be that through a beautiful photo of a car cresting the hill at Turn 10 or through a stupid .gif like all I’ve been tweeting this morning after Rossi was announced…finding a way to appeal to people. That way, they’ll come to associate COTA with having a good time. We’re in a business where people come here for leisure and entertainment. That entertainment needs to extend being beyond the track. There’s entertainment we can provide them for free every day that will supplement their on track experience in order to make this the most world class experience for a racing fan.”

The idea that the COTA account provides a direct means of access for many people who are used to a high barrier of entry at the F1 and WEC level of racing means an increased level of engagement, but also carries some weight. A simple follow or re-tweet of a fan can actually be incredibly meaningful. “People react that way, ‘COTA just followed me!’ That’s why I have no problem doing it when people ask,” says Yaeger. ”It’s so simple and brings them so much joy.”

I reached out to a few of the other official Twitter accounts representing F1 entities who interact with and help define the voice of COTA’s online presence. Jess Brown, Haas F1 team’s director of social media at True Speed Communication, explains their occasional banter: “The relationship with COTA was something that happened naturally. We always intended to team up with the track at some point, especially around the USGP weekend, but we didn’t schedule any posts for specific days or times. All the back-and-forth on Twitter is totally spur-of-the-moment, organic content. The fans seem to enjoy it and we’ve had fun with it.”

At the end of the day, the Circuit of the Americas’ public voice is created by two people with incredible access to “the motorsports lifestyle,” but still grateful for the love of the fans. Yaeger confirms, “I actually read the timeline of the people we follow. I see what people are talking about, and that informs a lot of the decisions that I make on a day to day basis of what I’m going to be talking about. It’s all part of the motorsports family, and I’m glad to be a part of it and I’m glad that we’ve been accepted into it because we have a lot of fun entertaining people daily.”

So, what’s something that hasn’t been said via Twitter, but that they’d like to say to you, the reader? “First and foremost, thank you for following us!” says Trahan. “I would say thank you for putting up with the insanity, because it gets pretty stupid from time to time,” laughs Yaeger. “That’s just a facet of my personality that’s manifested itself within the Twitter brand. So thank you, we love interacting with the fans every day and it means the absolute world to us that we’ve got such an awesome group of people that we get to talk to all the time.” Trahan adds, “And if they get excited when we tweet at them, we get excited when they tweet at us. They’re making our day as much as we’re making theirs.”

Finally, a parting statement from @circuitamericas, to you, the reader: “Time to make the tweets.”

Follow the Circuit of the Americas on Twitter at https://twitter.com/circuitamerica….